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Believers
and
Belongers

Jim Tresner, 33°, Grand Cross

“The times, they are a-changing.”
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Both things seem true in our age. Perhaps they have always been true. But I think not. Our great-grandparents assumed that their children would live much the same lives as their own grandparents had. Historically, that had certainly been true. There had been minor changes, even some major ones, but no one, in generations past, doubted that the world of tomorrow would be essentially the same as the world they had always known. Work would still be work, faith would still be faith. No one had anticipated the rate of change with which we live daily.

In her pre-teens, my grandmother made a trip of several hundred miles in a horse-drawn wagon, helping to take the wheels off each night and grease the axles. She lived to see men walk on the moon. In the last few years, we have seen the word “work” redefined. It now consists largely of actions which people 30 years ago would not have recognized, let alone defined as work, with computers becoming not just part but the center of almost every job.

If possible, an even greater change is taking place in spirituality. And it may have even more profound implications than the changes in work. The characterizations which follow are both overly generalized and simplified, but they are essentially true.

The 1950s were, by and large, a time of comfortable spirituality. It was not, for most people, a matter of personal quest or even involvement. We lived, as the poet Frederick Locker-Lampson had written a century earlier in The Jester’s Plea:

They go to church on Sunday;

And many are afraid of God --

And more of Mrs. Grundy.

The majority did go to church on Sunday -- with a comfortable piety and because they were a little afraid of comment from the neighbors if they did not. It was the proper thing to do, and people did it. It was not insincere. It was just that spirituality did not seem to require much thought.

The 1960s seemed to bring an “external spirituality.” Spirituality and faith seemed less a matter of wrestling in the soul and more a matter of being easy and free, letting it all “hang out” and “doing your own thing.” Spirituality was something which would happen to you, if you just hung loose. The pace of change was beginning to accelerate, and the way to handle that change was just to drop out for a while.

Then, the 1970s externalized that spirituality almost violently. Music turned hard and faith turned cruel. The evangelical movement (which is an essentially compassionate and caring faith) had been growing for some time, but among some people evangelicalism began to turn toxic and transform into fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, in this definition, is to faith what Nazism is to politics -- an intolerant “believe my way or else” attitude which regards the subjugation of others “for their own good” as perfectly appropriate.

The 1980s tried to substitute career for faith and material gain for inward spirituality. It was the “Me Generation.”

But the 1990s have seen a subtle shift. One by one, men and women have discovered that they “have it all, and it isn’t enough.” The decade has been marked by an increasing search for spiritual values and truths on the part of many people. But in many cases, this search has taken place either outside of or partially outside of the churches.

So true is this that sociologists have been forced to add a new category to those they have traditionally used in analyzing surveys of American faith and spiritual practice -- “Believers but not Belongers.” The category describes men and women who believe in the existence of a soul and in life after death, but who are not members of any church. According to the most recent survey data, more than 30 million “baby boomers” fall into that category. Some drift from guru to shaman, hoping to find an answer to the spiritual need within themselves. But more and more are discovering that one must wrestle with angels on this quest. And, indeed, more and more are discovering that it is a quest.

That is, perhaps, where Masonry can help. Masonry is not a religion, of course, and it cannot substitute for a religion. It does not and cannot offer salvation, or religious orthodoxy, or the many other things which a man or woman derives from faith. That is the reason Masonry so constantly tells men they must find those things in their own faith tradition and House of Worship. But Masonry can and does help with spiritual growth.

The nature of the relationship between spirituality and faith has been debated by the wisest men of the church for centuries, and we cannot resolve the issue here. But few question that an awakening and strengthening spirituality often leads to a faith. That is the primary reason so many wives and ministers have said and written that the men they know become far more active in their churches after they join Masonry.

For Masonry is essentially spiritual. It is the modern version of the great quest, echoed in initiations from the earliest times, in which the person encounters and discovers himself, confronts his strengths and his weaknesses, and, in so doing, achieves awakening or enlightenment. It is the journey home of Odysseus, the epic adventure of Gilgamesh, the search of Galahad for the Grail. It is the theme of Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The genius of Masonry is that the quest is not reserved for a Greek king, an Mesopotamian warrior, a British knight, a Saxon thane, a hobbit, or an astronaut. Masonry makes it available to the common man, to you and me and people like us, if we simply decide to undertake the quest seriously.

That quest is what Masonry has to offer those 30 million people who are searching for a meaning. The growth in spirituality which arises from that quest will probably point most of them to a faith and to activity in that faith. Masonry may well continue to be, as we have historically been, the greatest friend and asset organized religion has -- if we’re just smart enough not to blow it.

Let us, as Masons, take pride in our heritage of developing spirituality (always remembering that taking pride in one’s own spirituality is, perhaps, the ultimate act of spiritual suicide). Let us not be afraid to say to our non-Mason friends who are searching for meaning, “If you search here sincerely, you will find it, for Masonry gives what is earnestly sought.” Let us share what we have with potential new Brothers.

They are already Believers. They may well become Belongers.


This article continues a new series titled “Essays from the Edge.” The essays—sometimes controversial—are designed to spur thought about issues in Masonry. For this feature to succeed, new materials will be needed. Please send thought-provoking articles to: SCOTTISH RITE JOURNAL, 1733 16TH ST, NW, WASHINGTON DC 20009–3103. Please mark the submission as an “Essay from the Edge.” You can also e-mail essays to edge@srmason-sj.org Thank you!